28 March 2017

Weapon-switching: quality or quantity?

If there is one nail in the coffin for action titles it’s when a review begins by saying: "the game lacks combat-options or depth", while this is often not the case. Games like Bayonetta offer a huge variety of weapon combinations to the player while others like Killer is Dead only have a single weapon. One can assume the former is better but it goes much further than that. A mechanic like weapon-switching - which allows the player to switch between weapons, abilities or even complete move-sets on the fly - has to fit the vision of the game to be work; thus it needs careful consideration.

This article will cover the different ways action games have handled weapon-switching, together with the up and downsides to each one and what it does to the overall game. Not every usage is done perfectly and some don’t even fit the games used in the example, but I hope this article will show that the combat system of games like Devil May Cry 4 and Bayonetta 2 aren’t the only one worth considering.

But first it’s important to acknowledge why games have to do this to begin with. First up is the human element; most can only store around five to nine actions in their short term memory.
Then there’s the technical side. One being a lack of buttons: modern game-consoles offer four face-buttons, four shoulder buttons, two control sticks and a d-pad with older controllers offering fewer options. Secondly, older games couldn’t load too many actions at the same time. In the original build of Devil May Cry 1 protagonist Dante couldn’t fire his guns and wield his sword at the same time due to memory limitations. While this was thankfully was fixed in the final release other weapons still had to be switched to via a long animation or menu. This is important to note as these progenitors, held back by these design flaws, influence games to this day.
With those disclaimers out of the way we can take a look at the most common ways switching between weapons and abilities is done. Note that some generalization is present here but most games will fall in these seven categories. While switching is often done between weapons, abilities, stances etc. we’ll call it weapon-switching for the duration of the article.



ALL IN
Allows the player to switch between weapons fluidly, combo-ing from one to the next.
(notable games: Devil May Cry 4, DmC Devil May Cry, Vanquish)


In this format the player can, even mid-combo, switch between weapons fluidly. In Devil May Cry 4 for instance Dante can switch between three weapons, three firearms and five fighting styles. The player has to remember which weapon is next in line for a switch but also press the button to switch and make sure his muscle memory doesn’t input commands for one weapon while he’s already at the next one. This gives the player a lot of combat-options at any given time, offering a great deal of creativity. But it also demands hand-eye coordination and memorization, resulting in a very high skill ceiling.
From the combat-designers perspective this allows for a certainty: the player always has access to the whole arsenal. This way they can design encounters around a specific weapon or setup as the player always has it as his disposal; ironically making the game less open ended in its combat. Examples can be found in the Blitz enemy from Devil May Cry 4 which is only vulnerable to ranged attacks or a Blood Rage in DmC: Devil May Cry which could only be damaged by fire weapons. These enemies with rough restrictions are then complimented by foes that are weak to all forms of attack, putting the near-infinite combat freedom on display. This is emphasized by a lack of menus, making it stylisher to look at. One big downside is that this setup deprives weapons of their uniqueness as the combat becomes more around the character than the weapon he wields. One will never form a bond with Rebellion in Devil May Cry 4 like they do with their Dragon Sword in Ninja Gaiden, because it’s just part of a bigger and more vast move-set across different weapons.
Thus this method is a strong fit for a game that: wants their players to be stylish and experimental, needs a high skill ceiling, wishes to avoid menu usage, thrives to test the system to its limits and doesn't mind a combo-video or two.



SWITCH UP
Lets the player switch setup during gameplay, but with a slight delay.
(notable games: Nioh, Souls-series, Ninja Gaiden II, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance)


These games offer a slightly altered version of that on offer in the “All in” setup. Players carry all their weapons with them but switching between them is done in a stilted way. In Nioh protagonist William can attack foes with his spear and at the end of his combo pull out his katana with a strong finishing slash that ends the combo and switches his weapon, after which he’s slightly halted. Other ways are seen in Ninja Gaiden II in which switching weapons can only be done via a quick-menu when Ryu isn’t attacking.
Games from the Souls series offer a similar approach in that one can use as little as two weapons to one-hundred if they don’t mind some menu switching during combat. But the character’s offensive comes to a full stop in between, disallowing combos. This system allows players to have all their weapons available to them while still urging them to have a favorite, while also offering variation to the player should he wish it.
From a design perspective each foe has to be beatable with any weapon as the designers should want to avoid forcing the player to pause the game to switch his setup, but it can design certain foes to be weak against certain weapons and strong against others to promote variation or reward a player for using a certain weapon. With all this taken in it can be stated that this method is a good fit for a game that want the player to dedicate to one weapon, but also wishes to offer variety for subsequent playthroughs while keeping an emphasis on style at arm's length.



PAUSE SWITCH
Switching is done in a menu that pauses the game.
(notable games: Devil May Cry 1, Ninja Gaiden Black, God Hand)


This methodology is born out of technical limitations as these games couldn’t load more than one weapon at a time. Thus they had to use menus where players could switch between weapons; allowing the game to load their assets and abilities. While an old system it still holds value. Because there’s a lot of menu switching involved players are more likely to find one setup and stick with it. But once they are stuck at a certain fight they will never feel like they are out of options. Elvis giving you trouble in God Hand, enter the menu and try new setups. Maybe a small change to the move-set and the inclusion of "back-step kick" is all one needs to win. It forces players to be efficient and dedicate themselves, but also allows them to strategize. This method works nicely with a game that wants the player to have many options, but focus on one. Sadly this method is an artifact of its time and will probably be forever replaced by ones mentioned throughout this article.



BOTH WORLDS
Allows fluid weapon-switching, but the selection of the switchable weapons are selected in a pause-menu.
(notable games: Bayonetta 1&2, Nier: Automata)


Seen in Bayonetta, this option allows for the largest variety of combat options with over twenty weapon combinations being available in its sequel. Such a huge amount of choice can never be mapped to a few buttons and thus requires a menu; an option born out of pure necessity. The sheer amount of combinations present can very easily overwhelm new players and as a result have them stick with safe options throughout the game. On the flip side experienced players will quickly find an overpowered combination as it’s impossible for the developers to fully check, test and balance each combination against each enemy-type. So while offering tons of creativity the game is also hampered by it. And while an emphasis on style might change this and force the player to vary his setups more, the fact that this change has to be done in a menu makes it far less stylish than for instance the “All in” method present in games like Devil May Cry 4.
This method is also an artifact of time and one that will, probably, disappear once newer mechanics or ways of changing setups are introduced. But it aims to offer the highest number of options available to offer infinite freedom and creativity which is more than commendable.



PREPARATION
Allows the player to select his setup at the start of a mission or at a checkpoint.
(notable games: Devil May Cry 3)


A setup that’s more of a compromise of the one seen in Bayonetta, this one allows the player to bring a certain setup into the level but it cannot be switched at will. Devil May Cry 3 is the most famous example of this allowing the player to choose a fighting style, two melee weapons and two firearms to bring into the fray. To switch between those he can press a button, allowing for stylish options. But he can only change his selection at a checkpoint or at the start of a new mission. This offers a degree of preference to the weapon selection and strategy, but also forces the designers to have all enemies be killable with every setup; a balancing nightmare. In exchange some setups can be designed so that they’ll make certain fights harder, and others easier. The "Trickster" fighting style won’t do you much good against the Vergil boss-fight but it’ll do wonders against the Arachnid. At first one can design the game so that each level has a clear best setup to use, but eventually it can blur the lines offering one set of enemies that is weak to one setup but end the mission with a boss that is strong against that setup; forcing the player to make choices.
A downside to this mechanic is that it’s easy to find a favorite and learn how to deal with its weaknesses, and forget the other available options. In Devil May Cry 3 many players use a Rebellion/Beowulf combo with Ebony/Spiral and the "Swordmaster" fighting style and master its usage across all encounters. Furthermore the player will often wonder what the combat would be like if he could switch styles or weapons on the fly, which was eventually modded into Devil May Cry 3 and gave the combat much more variety and emphasis on style as a result but removed the strategy element. This way of weapon-switching works best with a game that that rewards knowledge, experimentation but also a combination of efficiency and style.


BULLET-TIME
Slows the game down and allows the player to select his weapon in a selection-wheel.
(notable games: The Witcher 3, Mass Effect 2, Doom 4)


A more modern take on the weapon system is found, strangely, outside of Stinger Magazine’s featured genre. Pressing a single button in the The Witcher 3 or Doom 4 opens up a radial menu while the gameplay is slowed down significantly. This allows players to assess the situation and carefully select their weapon of choice; giving player access to a wider selection of options while keeping the button-layout free from any clutter. On the flip-side it poses a problem to the movement of the character. If he is already moving while the wheel is opened and he then closes it, it will often result in the character coming to a full-stop. Or when he changes the camera while in the menu the character’s running direction might change when it is closed. Often times these menus also take up nearly the whole screen, hampering your overview on the battle. This makes it fit best with a game that wishes to offer a ton of combat-options but doesn’t want to clutter the controller or mess with tons of menus. Down the line the technology behind this setup will need improving regarding its impact on character movement.



ONE MAN ARMY
No switching is done, the character has all his abilities available to him at all times.
(notable games: Killer is Dead, Rising Zan: Samurai Gunman, Ninja Gaiden 3)


Completely on the other side of the spectrum lies a game that gives the player one load-out and sticks with it. While these games are often criticized for their lack of variety this is usually only on a surface level. Games like Killer is Dead are able to balance the game perfectly around protagonist Mondo’s weapons the Moonlight and Muscleback. The player will also get to know their abilities intimately and how to deal with each and every foe. It also removes a lot of clutter from the game; forcing the player to rely less on his plethora of options but more on his own skills at the mechanics at play. If a player is stuck in Demon’s Souls, he can switch to magic. Or when Vergil is running amok in Devil May Cry 3, a forum-user can recommend you use Beowulf’s "Killer Bee" attack. But if you’re stuck in Rising Zan, only your own skillset can save you. This methodology of design does eye bad when it’s done in a sequel however. If a game has promoted variation in the past but takes it away in a sequel it can appear jarring, as was the case in Ninja Gaiden 3. But considering this game tried to focus more on the one character and his relationship with his weapon, it a at least a considered choice. Just not one taken for granted.
This method is the best fit for a game that wants a core experience without too much clutter, focused on one single character. It also allows for the best level of balance and difficulty curve as there are far less variables to take into account when designing a game.



With all the above taken in one must reach one simple conclusion: there is no perfect way to handle the switching or to do it at all. Armed with the data listed in this article one may even state that many games are using the wrong system. Ninja Gaiden might be better of using the “Preperation system as it focuses more on efficiency and tactics, while its current system doesn’t. Devil May Cry 3 would be a way better fit in the “All in” setup as seen in Devil May Cry 4, and Bayonetta might be able to switch between its dozen weapon setups in a weapon wheel. Imagine a weapon-wheel popping up during her time-slowing "Witch-Time" ability; endless possibilities await.Each system is a mechanic that should be considered and whether or not it fits the vision of the game’s combat best. Like how Ninja Gaiden isn’t about style but wishes to focus on efficiency, so an on the fly weapon-switch system has no home there. Quantity in available combat options should never persevere over its quality.

So the next time you read a review saying that “the combat lack variety”, consider that it might be the best fit for the game and try it before passing judgment.



opinion style
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.
This piece was inspired by a conversation I had with fellow action-game enthusiast New_Birdman on how each game in this genre seems to be pulling towards the same design philosophy; variety is quality. Games like Killer is Dead were panned for it using only one weapon setup and my personal favorite Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance bashed for not allowing weapon switching mid-combo. I wanted to show that each system has their place and explore the multiple systems on offer. If one were to ask me which system I prefer it would be the one used in Devil May Cry 3, which was dubbed “Preperation” in this article. Though I don’t feel it’s the perfect fit for the game itself it does offer the best balance between strategy and style; allowing one to strategize which setup to bring into the mission while still styling with weapon switching during combat. I would love to see it be featured in Ninja Gaiden 4 if it were to ever see the light of day.

postscript notes
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  • Games such as The Wonderful 101 and God of War deserve a mention too, but there were better examples in place to explain the systems discussed.
  • While researching for this piece I was a tad surprised (and also not surprised) to find that there isn't an action-game for the PC that uses all 104 keyboard buttons; while impossible to control it would probably be a dream game for Devil May Cry 4 enthusiasts. Make it happen Kamiya.
  • I specifically bought Rising Zan: The Samurai Gunman (Playstation 1) for this article to see how it influenced the genre and its systems. A separate article covering this progenitor of the genre will follow later-on.
  • In my research I was surprised to see how little a weapon-wheel is used in the genre itself, perhaps due to its lack of precision in stressful situations. Though its inclusion in the popular Witcher 3 might change this in the nearby future.
  • I really wished to use Prince of Persia: Warrior Within as an example, but couldn't find a place. This little 'action game that could' deserves more mention than it gets.
  • While a core of the genre this aspect is rarely if ever discussed in interviews, which is a shame. The only mention I could find was in an interview with the designer behind Death's Gambit for the Playstation 4.
  • Compliments to Bloodborne's method of combining two weapons into one, using a special attack to switch between forms. It wasn't a big enough feature to get a prominent role in the article but wished to mention it regardless.

20 comments :

  1. God hand would have benefited from multiple move load outs maybe assigned to the d pad. I find myself using certain load outs more than others and the single load out makes me less likely to experiment as it's a bit clunky to change them.

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    1. I too had that idea quite a few times, hell you could even switch between them on the fly maybe by having Gene do a certain animation (to not make it tooooo complex). I really feel that this and perhaps an infinite level wheel would be the ways to improve on the original.

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    2. If I recall dmc1 hd added real time weapon switch with the trade off being you can be hit. Maybe god hand could be modded to have such fixes. Also do you think the midgets in god hand where underused? Since they rarely appear and when they do it's not usually mixed with other mobs.

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    3. They are the only mob to not see liberal resuse and they add a lot to the dynamism of combat. They function as a minor threat while you deal with other more competent mobs. I just love that cowboy ricochet sound when you punt them around. Notably I was disappointed by the lack of mob remixes on lvl die beyond stage 1 changes.

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    4. DMC1 had the real time weapon switching from the original version too, this was a loading issue though; the animation was used to load in the weapon assets. As noted in the original DMC1 build you couldn't even fire and attack without menu usage in between. The way I see it for God Hand (2) is akin to that yeah, though maybe a more animation akin to what Dante does if he switches stances during DMC4 (while standing still, he does a little voice clip and 'stance' that cannot be canceled).

      About the midgets, I feel they didn't use them nearly enough nor built it up. The first time you fight this type of foe is in a 5v1 fight with tons of stuff going on at the same time. It's bonkers and puts the player in a bad spot as they don't know how to deal with this type of specific foe. But if they had introduced them sooner as normal foes the boss version would've lost a lot of its charm. It's always a trade-off haha :P

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    5. Alien soldier a genesis/mega drive run n gun has real time 4 weapon wheel. You can switch weapons to let them regenerate ammo and change weapon loud outs at the weapon select screen where your are booted to when you die. It's a treasure game they also had similar things in gunstar heroes.

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    6. Oooh that sounds really interesting, got any footage of it?

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    7. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ZskKA6jL9I8

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    8. It's a very progressive game for its time and even now. Sort of like if platinum time travelled. It's a boss rush game as treasure loves games like that. I played it as a kid on emulators among many other genesis, nes, arcade and neo geo games so I am aware of odd titles like it.

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    9. Looks interesting, never really dived into that genre. Game looks absolutely bonkers. Might give it a whirl this weekend, see what it's like! Cheers man : )

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    10. It's a kin to character action/fancy beat em ups that we are used to in terms of dodging, which is why I used it as an example. It's very fast and you can change your weapons at will which all have a different function(homing,precise linear laser,3 way gun spread like contra) and bosses have weaknesses to. You may want to check sin and punishment which is also by treasure, the sequel is on wii and both are 3rd person rail shooters where you have a gun and a sword for melee to deflect shots sometimes.

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    11. Dmc and such share their DNA with arcade beat em ups and it's what they evolved from among other arcade types like shoot em ups. Character action seems to be the go to term for them aside from hack n slash which I don't think is accurate to something like god hand, which can be confusing since god hand is the same genre. It's interesting to note how the genre is named given it varies more than other genres. What precisely do the developers who made these games call them besides simply action games? Considering they made them its impressive how they all came to a similar yet distinct conclusion for their games.

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    12. I usually call them character action and fancy beat em ups, which is widely the excepted term for them for those in the know along with beat em ups. A way I describe them is saying that they are the evolution of the classic beat em up, which helps understand the gameplay more such as how god hand mimics final fight and streets of rage.

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    13. I have no clue who coined character action but I find it's an apt name due to how it is about how you control directly a single character and their actions, genre names can be tricky when they are not defined well enough but outlining the basics is a start. It also has action in the name so that indicates the genre. It's not perfect but it helps to unify them under a shared term.

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    14. Maybe you could do an article on the origins and terms form this genre? its all very interesting to note and helps further in depth discussions.

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    15. Did I mention alien soldier has parries, you can parry projectiles and gain life pick ups from them.

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    16. beat em ups are a varied genre, since looking at DMC and god hand they both have many things in common but on surface they seem like different genres. As in how dmc is called a hack n slash while god hand is called beat em up. Notably vanquish also is same genre applied to 3rd person cover shooters, and vanquish is very much a stylish as a 3rd person shoot bang can get. I try to make my point clear as many call this genre by other names and it can be confusing as definitions vary. Its intriguing stuff to say the least.

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    17. Vash the shell bullet has done videos on beat em ups, and their place in 8generation.

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=5DiKd-m7Sas

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    18. Sorry if I type too much I'll let you catch up if you can, thanks for reading haha.

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    19. Ha! It's cool, I have to go out for a day I'll Read&Reply tomorrow : ) Added you to the forum, if you want we can continue the talk there? Just make a topic in General Discussion. Easier!

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